A DON’T MISS FROM 2013

If you missed The Immigrant as I did on its first release, find it and view it now.

Incomparable Cotillard
photo by Anguerde

Of what better leads can one dream?  Cotillard, Phoenix and Renner.  All three are as fine as film acting can be.  Marion Cotillard is excruciatingly subtle, especially when she speaks with her eyes rather than with words.

Joaquin Phoenix adds one more portrait to a stout list of self-doubting and/or self-hating melancholy souls.  Jeremy Renner as the small-time magician dancing and  floating through life may suffer less, may be a shallower character.  But he proves himself capable of making his own kind of sacrifice.  Renner is so versatile that it seems not quite accurate to describe him as perfectly cast here.

Joaquin Phoenix
photo by Aphrodite

Set during one of the peaks of historic immigration as waves of newcomers inundate Ellis Island, the story is a tale not often told of the perils, in the situation, for a woman  alone on the island, or even on the boat before arrival.

It is an ugly story, beautifully told.

Jeremy Rennet
photo by handbook

 

 

The engrossing cinematography captures the sepia of era photographs.  And the final shot ranks at least with that of The Third Man as two of the greatest final frames in film history.

The Immigrant James Gray 2013
photography Darius Khondji
production design Happy Massee

NEXT FRIDAY POST December 22

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

GOLD SPLICED IN

GOLD          Karl Hartl          1934

The exposition is clear, simple and always interesting.  Shown rather than told.  The narrative is a smooth flow.  The photography in this near-SciFi film from Nazi Germany is clear and highly professional.  Am I being condescending?  What else to expect from UFA?

The story,  today, has to seem  not very original, however:  some German scientists’ attempt at alchemy, building to a moral dilemma  —  scientific and commercial success vs. the social good.  We’re talking gold  here  —  and materialism  —  and, towards the end, inklings of globalism.

Gold comes out of thirties Germany; but I detect no Naziism.  The individual who steals the German scientific secrets, and murders to do so, is a Scot who is capitalistically self-centered and selfish.  Is the struggle between this Scot industrialist bad guy and the German good guys perhapsmore propagandistic than I have taken into account?

Albers, in center, as Dietrich’s lover in Von Sternberg’s THE BLUE ANGEL

The directing is straightforward and competent.  The film is well-paced with a lot of effective silences.  And the actors are successful.  Hans Albers stars as the principal good guy German scientist  —  principal because he’s the one left alive.  According to Katz (Film Encyclopedia), Albers made no films between 1935 and 1943.  Interesting.  Katz also reports that Brigitte Helm retired in 1935,  He comments that the silent star (now posthumously world famous as a result of the longevity of Metropolis) was less successful in talkies.  I do not agree, based on her performance here.

Some footage from Gold appears in Curt Siodmak’s 1953 American film The Magnetic Monster, starring inveterate monster chaser Richard Carlson.  The climactic scene of Gold, in which our German good guy destroys the alchemical machine stolen by the Scotch bad guy, is brilliantly and matchingly spliced into the conclusion of Siodmak’s film.

On right, Richard Carlson who after such diverse films as TOO MANY GIRLS, HOLD THAT GHOST AND THE LITTLE FOXES, became creature chaser par excellence in the second phase of his career.

The Magnetic Monster          Curt Siodmak          1953
editor, Herbert L. Strock ; production designer, George Van Marter

NEXT FRIDAY POST November 17

Until then,
See you AT the movies
Rick

LETTERS, PERSONAL AND CINEMATIC

CELEBRITIES I HAVE KNOWN

One of my treasures, still in my files, is a letter from Max Ophüls (and I also hold onto the envelope, personally addressed to me in his own European longhand).  It is a gracious letter, centered on the rarity of a director’s receiving fan mail.  I had written him in admiration of Letter from an Unknown Woman, and I am glad that I did.

A REVIEW OF OPHÜLS’ 1940 FILM

From Mayerling to Sarajevo
Max Ophüls
1940

The aristocratic life is here.  So are the court, the manners, the moeurs.  Production design and clothes.  But the visual sense, the dazzling camera to which we are accustomed are missing.  There is a great deal of talk.  It is good, smart talk but it means that the film’s ideas and emotions are seldom given us pictorially.

The performances are all good.  Gabrielle Dorziat is excellent, and Edwidge Feuilière is outstanding.

But if there is such a thing as minor Ophüls, this is it.

OPHULS directing Martine Carol in LOLA MONTES

MAJOR  OPHÜLS

If you are unfamiliar with any of the director’s masterpieces, you owe it to yourself to experience it or them now, as in right now.

“Letter from an Unknown Woman” (1948)

Joan Fontaine, the poignant center of LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN

“La Ronde” (1950)
“Le Plaisir” (1951)
“The Earrings of Madame de…” (1953)
“Lola Montes” (1955)

All these titles, especially “Letter” and “Earrings” appear on the 10-Best lists of many directors and critics.

NEXT FRIDAY POST November 3,

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

 

 

 

 

HOLLYWOOD ENTERS THE WAR

RECOMMENDED READING

Five Came Back by Mark Harris

The story of five Hollywood directors who went to war in the forties and made some unforgettable propaganda films is a story that needed telling, and in Mark Harris it has found a knowledgeable, thorough and research-oriented author.  Yet his accounts of Wyler, Stevens, Capra, Huston and Ford in action  —  both military and dramatic  —  reads like a novel.  We enter all the theaters of war, with Ford in the Pacific, Wyler in Africa and Italy and in the Memphis Belle, Huston in the  Aleutians and at San Pietro, Stevens photographing the liberation of concentration camps (with film that would become evidence at Nuremberg), and Capra in Washington organizing and superintending it all.

William Wyler

Stevens in postwar work, on the set with his his stars

If Huston or Ford is a personal hero, however, and you are unfamiliar with previous books about them, you might wish to steer clear of this study  —  very unattractive portraits (anti-Semitic portraits) of two unattractive personalities.  Storied filmmakers of staggering talent  —  but unattractive personalities.

And Harris’ treatment of the fabled Frank Capra is in a class by itself.  I had believed that no writer could savage Capra to the extent that Capra savages himself in the final pages of his own book The Name Above the Title, but Harris manages to surpass him.  It is clear early in the book that Harris likes neither Frank Capra nor his films.  He is determined to see Capra as a crypto-Fascist; and any quality or craft in his work goes largely unmentioned.

He writes with barely disguised delight of the critical and box office failure of It’s a Wonderful Life, Capra’s first postwar film, at the time of its original release.  His ends his account of Capra with that and not a word about the rediscovery of It’s a Wonderful Life on television, not a word about its present day popularity and longevity as one of America’s best loved films.

Frank Capra

But this is a superbly written book, filled with information.  It includes extensive notes, background on  sources, a full bibliography and some fine photographs.

I learned something new on every page.  I didn’t know that Eric Knight participated in this American wartime effort.  I didn’t know that Joris Ivens did.  Or. Dr. Seuss.

Five Came Back by Mark Harris.  Penguin, 2015.

NEXT Friday POST October 13

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

REMARQUE’S EVERYSOLDIER IMMORTALIZED BY MILESTONE

All Quiet on the Western Front
Lewis Milestone
1930
screenplay George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, Dell Andrews
based on the novel by Eric Maria Remarque

Everyone remembers the last few feet of film in Lewis Milestone’s 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front.  It reprises an earlier sequence when the soldiers we know march off, away from the camera.  Each, in his turn, looks back over his shoulder at us.  At the end we have seen most of them die, and we feel guilty, even about the less likable ones.

Watching the film again, the viewer finds the earlier sequence already heartbreaking.  We remember each of these young men, the lovable and the unlikable; and we know that almost all of them will die.

The opening sequence in the hometown of these German soldiers is masterful.  The sight of a most theatrical arch (part of the town plaz) is balanced by the filmic introduction of the characters and a graphic exposition.  The National Board of Review said at the time of the original release:  “A magnificent cinematic equivalent of the book…to Mr. Milestone goes the credit of effecting the similitude in united and dynamic picture terms.  The sound and image mediums blend as one, as a form of artistic expression that only the motion [picture] screen can give.”

Indeed credit must go as well to the writers who have done one of the screen’s most memorable jobs of adaptation  —  a magnificent achievement in adaptation.  The first half of Remarque’s novel is largely impressionistic and not particularly linear.  With flashbacks and visualizations of description, through selection and combining, the adapters created a continuous story suitable for its era’s audience while retaining an overwhelming sense of the war in which  —  and through which  —  all that we see occurs.

Milestone’s vigorous camera (photography by Arthur Edeson, editing by Milton Carruth and Edgar Adams) moves as few cameras in Hollywood were moving in 1930.  It captures the bombardment, the rattling machine guns, the rats, the rain that always drenches war, and the mud.  The number of the dead.  And the body parts.  The track channels the noise and noises of war.

Kimmerich’s Boots.  The dying Kimmerich’s good boots make a motif on film as on the page.  Müller lusts after them, and he will eventually pass them on.  Our Everyman Paul Baümer is present for Kimmmerich’s death and, leaving the hospital afterwards, launches joyously into a glad-to-be-alive run.  In what today appears a lapse, Paul, back in his barracks, delivers a monologue to one of his fellows explaining how he felt, telling us what we have already seen and know.  Was this verbalizing in the original silent footage (with extended titles) shot when All Quiet was planned as a silent film?  These thoughts he shares ARE in the novel and, as expressed in the film, let us know succinctly that he thought about sex, among other things.  This is psychologically sound, and how else convey it?  The clumsiness of it may be in part the fault of the acting.

The Girl on the Poster.  The continuing and forceful visual style of All Quiet is evident in the café scene where the soldiers have gathered to get drunk and look for women.  Our man Paul Baümer and buddy Albert Kropp sit at a table behind which is a poster featuring a soldier with his girl.  Kropp tears the soldier from the picture, leaving just the girl available for their fantasy intentions.  The action will be repeated later in the hospital where Kropp tears the leg he has lost from an earlier photo of himself before his wounding.  Actually neither Milestone nor the screen writers can be credited with the eloquent mutilation of the poster.  The action is Remarque’s, in his novel.  The later incident in the hospital is an inventive addition of the film.

A remarkable shot that everyone who has seen All Quiet remembers is that of grenade smoke clearing and revealing a pair of hands  —  only a pair of hands  — clinging to barbed wire.  This too is precisely described by Remarque in his remarkable book.

The Leaders in the Arena.  Three conversational bits in three different moments in the novel are gathered and combined by the screenwriters into the scene in the film in which the soldiers wonder why they are killing Frenchmen they have never met and can have nothing against.  This grows into one of All Quiet‘s memorable set pieces as the soldiers, talking together, decide that in future, national leaders angry with each other should fight out their disagreement personally face to face before an arena audience and let the better nation win.  In all my viewings of All Quiet, I have never sat with an audience that did not applaud this proposal.

The French Girls.  The scene with the French girls pleased its original pre-Code audience and surprised the late 40s-audience upon the film’s re-release.  Its eroticism seems mild enough today  —  nay, innocent.  Paul and two chums swim naked (this is 1930; we see the men only from the waist up) across a narrow river and approach the farm house where they are expected, bearing their clothes in front of them, much to the delight of the three French girls watching them from within.  After food and wine, the camera reveals the dining table in an empty room with scattered clothes, then settles on the open door of one room from which we hear Paul’s voice.  He speaks to the French girl of what this night will mean to him, an isolated night, away from war and death.

Why does the world love Paul Baümer?  Why did Americans love this German soldier such a short time after so devastating a war?  Lew Ayers’ stylized acting is discomfiting at times.  Yet we always like him and are always pulling for him.  We suffer with him when on his brief leave home he is alone and isolated as his acquaintances and even his family cannot grasp the horrors he knows and make their ignorant assumptions about his experiences.  He has lived only twenty years and is older than all of them.

This is not an actors’ film; and the theme and content, the photography and editing and the sounds of war on the track defeat the thespian shortcomings.  Remarque’s creation  —  Paul and his world  —  win, and win us.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Actor note:  In his supporting role as Kat, Second Company’s sergeant, Louis Wolheim creates a warm and enduring character.  This viewing of All Quiet on the Western Front appears to invalidate the smart-aleck evaluation of Wolheim in The Racket on Rick’s Flicks for 8/7/15.

NEXT FRIDAY POST September 1
Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

 

CIVIL WAR WITHIN THE CIVIL WAR

Razor-tongued Judith Crist, of national critical reputation at the time of the release of The Beguiled in 1976, wrote:  “A must for sadists and women-haters.”  Passing over whether that is an apt description of the earlier film with Clint Eastwood and directed by Don Siegel, I am curious about how many of my readers would describe Sofia Coppola’s current version in the same way.

Under the firm yet delicate hand of Coppola, this Beguiled, from the novel by Thomas Cullinan  is a mood piece.  Pace and rhythm, atmosphere and setting, are  beautifully sustained and controlled.  If Nicole Kidman’s off-set comments are accurate  —  that Coppola captains a relaxed ship  —  the final edited result here is an impressive achievement.  (I remain confused about one aspect of the production design and/or the photography.  The backgrounds of the external shots invariably resemble still photographs  —  not process shots but stills.  They are consistent and fit the mood.  Was their intention beyond consistency and fitness?  I would enjoy hearing from readers about this also.)

The story is set in the Confederacy during the Civil War at a girls’ boarding school  —    currently two instructors (Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst) and four students.  They rescue and nurse back to health a wounded Union soldier, and the male presence among them surfaces repressions, rivalries and jealousies.  SPOILER ALERT:  They heal the captain’s wounded leg, but Miss Martha (Kidman with stalwart nursing skills) will eventually amputate it. Captain McBurney (Farrell)  —  though pathological in his fury  — is more fortunate than he realizes because this is a substitute Freudian amputation.

Elle Fanning is uncomfortably good as the most nubile of the students.  Dunst is pitch perfect in her special loneliness; Farrell is perfectly cast and always excellent; and Kidman is at her best in one of her most subtle performances.

A.O. Scoot in the New York Times describes The Beguiled as a comedy.  This is debatable, even in the limited sense in which he apparently intended.  But his description of the look of the film and of Coppola’s intent and achievement are both admirable:  “Mist and cannon smoke from a distant battlefield hang amid the Spanish moss.  The atmosphere is too genteel to be gothic, but it is haunted nonetheless, by intimations of disorder, lust and violence.”  And Sofia Coppola’s film “is less a hothouse flower than a bonsai garden,a work of cool, exquisite artifice that evokes wildness on a small, controlled scale.”  (New York Times, 6/23/17.)

The Beguiled                     The Beguiled
Sofia Coppola                       Don Siegel
2017                                      1976

NEXT FRIDAY POST August 11

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

1976

A HIGH-POWERED HOWARD

Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest (courtesy Verduno)

Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest

Howard in his prime (courtesy Verduno)

Howard in his prime (courtesy Di Verduno)

Leslie Howard in his Hollywood heyday

Leslie Howard in his Hollywood heyday (courtesy Di Verduno)

During his fabulous decade in Hollywood Leslie Howard received two Academy Award nominations.  His first was for the leading role in Berkeley Square, the part he made his own on stage and screen.  The second nomination came in 1938, the year before he would appear as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind  —  a nomination for his performance as Henry Higgins in the British film Pygmalion,a role for which he was eminently suitable and one which he played to the hilt.  As excellent as Wendy Hiller and everyone else are,  Pygmalion is Howard’s picture  —  as Of Human Bondage is his despite the fact that these days it tends to be discussed only in reference to Bette Davis.

Viewing Pygmalion for the first time in several years, I am aghast at how slow a start it takes, and how belabored some of the Shavian wit occasionally sounds.  This is a play, and no amount of opening up, no amount of montage-ing by the writing and direction and editing can disguise that this is a play, though contemporary (and some present-day) reviews seem so untroubled by this that I suspect I may owe the film yet another look.

But once these fine actors go to work, everything picks up, and the camera persistently catches an array of subtleties in the Howard face.  Most amazing of all, for a 1938 British film, is the richness of sexual dynamism In Howard’s portrayal.  As he begins to respond to Wendy Hiller’s growing interest and flirtatiousness, his eyes give us surprising erotic messages for a film of this vintage.

And speaking of its vintage:  Pygmalion was released the year before Clark Gable made a legendary exit in Gone with the Wind.  In Pygmalion Leslie Howard says damn four times.

In addition to his damns, Howard offers us another of his instances of seeming born to play the part.  He handles the Shavian lines like the professional he is, the Englishman he is  —  and solid actor and shining star.

Pygmalion
Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard
1938

Rick’s Flicks is grateful to Ginevra Di Verduno for permission to use photographs featured on her blog.  If you are not familiar with her INAFFERRABILE LESLIE HOWARD, you have a treat ahead of you. The blog is picture-filled with a wide range of portraits, on- and off-screen; it features history and interviews and memoirs; and embraces the latest in Howard scholarship.

https://inafferrabileleslie.wordpress.com

NEXT FRIDAY POST February 24

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick